After Sunday's action, most NFL teams have only two games left to play, and only seven of the NFL's 12 playoff spots are spoken for. Unbelievably enough, 22 of the NFL's 32 teams are still in the playoff conversation. Here they are:
CLINCHED SPOT IN NFC PLAYOFFS
Green Bay Packers (13-1)
The 2011 Packers clinched a playoff spot in June 1985. They have spent the last 26 years attempting to wrap up the NFC's top overall seed, which they are now guaranteed -- while the 11-3 Saints are capable of equaling their record, the Packers' win over New Orleans in Week 1 puts them over the top by virtue of tiebreaker.
New Orleans Saints (11-3)
The Saints are also a lock to reach the playoffs, and they will do so for the third consecutive year. New Orleans appears highly likely to win the NFC South, but they could have to settle for a wild card slot if a) two losses and b) two Falcons wins come to pass. Atlanta would win the tiebreaker, thanks to the superior divisional record implied in this scenario.
New Orleans is also in the driver's seat to grab the NFC's second first-round bye.
San Francisco 49ers (10-3)
The Niners have had the NFC West locked up for weeks. Their aim at this juncture is to take the first-round playoff bye from the Saints. They have one fewer win than New Orleans with three to play. If they can equal the Saints' record, they'll win out, thanks to their superior record against common opponents (whether they beat the Rams or not).
WOULD BE IN NFC PLAYOFFS IF SEASON ENDED TODAY
Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
With three teams mathematically in the hunt, there are plenty of levers to pull in the NFC East. The Cowboys finish up their season with games against the still-alive Giants and Eagles. A loss to the Giants on New Year's Day would be disastrous, and would take the Cowboys' destiny partially out of their own hands.
Atlanta Falcons (9-5)
The Falcons are still mathematically capable of stealing the NFC South championship from the Saints, but they're more likely to settle for a wild card slot.
Detroit Lions (9-5)
Thanks to a Week 7 loss against Atlanta, the Lions still fall to the sixth spot if they equal the Falcons' record, which, if the season ended today, would pit them against the 49ers in the first round. They're a win away from their first playoff appearance since the 20th century, but if they drop both their remaining games, there's a mess of 7-7 teams that are perfectly willing to take it away from them.
TEAMS WITH A NOT-TOO-IMPROBABLE SHOT
New York Giants (7-7)
If the Giants win their two remaining games, they win the NFC East and enter the playoffs. If they lose next week against the Jets, they're still alive so long as the Cowboys also lose. Then, a Week 17 win against Dallas would give them an 8-8 record and a division title, thanks to their superior head-to-head record.
Seattle Seahawks (7-7)
I KNOW! The Seahawks, who sat at 2-6 a month and a half ago, are suddenly as mathematically likely as the Giants to reach the playoffs. Thanks to a Week 4 loss to the Falcons, they can't touch Atlanta. But if the Lions drop their last two games and the Seahawks extend their three-game winning streak to five games, the Seahawks are in thanks to tiebreaking wins over all the other 7-7 ding-dongs.
Arizona Cardinals (7-7)
And just as strangely, thanks to a four-game winning streak, Arizona is also still alive. Even if the once-1-6 Cardinals finish at 9-7, a half-dozen needles need to point the right way for them to enter the postseason.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-8)
The Eagles win their two remaining games, the Giants beat the Cowboys, and those two teams drop their other games. If all these things come to pass, the 8-8 Eagles take the East over the 8-8 Giants and 8-8 Cowboys by virtue of tiebreaker.
Chicago Bears (7-7)
Less than a month ago, Coolstandings.com pegged the then-7-3 Bears' odds of reaching the playoffs at about 85 percent. They have lost their quarterback, fallen off a cliff, and seen their estimated chances fall to 3.4 percent. Mathematically, they are breathing, but practically speaking, they are what industry insiders commonly describe as "frickin' donezo, kid."
CLINCHED SPOT IN AFC PLAYOFFS
New England Patriots (11-3)
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)
The Steelers were positively exploded by the Ravens in Week 1, but if they can find a way around San Francisco's defense on Monday night, they will leapfrog Baltimore and enjoy sole possession of the AFC North lead, which would also put them in position to grab a first-round playoff bye.
Baltimore Ravens (10-4)
Despite an embarrassing loss to the Chargers on Sunday night, the Ravens are among the AFC's elite teams. If they miss out on a first-round bye, it's simply because the AFC has more elite teams than it has playoff byes to offer, and any team that stumbles into them in the first round is in trouble by default.
This playoff appearance will be the Ravens' fifth of the last six years.
Houston Texans (10-4)
For the first time since 2000, an NFL team is going to make its first-ever playoff appearance. The Texans are also capable of claiming the AFC's second first-round bye.
WOULD BE IN AFC PLAYOFFS IF SEASON ENDED TODAY
Denver Broncos (8-6)
The Broncos hold sole possession of the AFC West lead, but as usual, the Chargers are making a late-season push, and the Raiders, skidding though they may be, are only a game out. The parity in this division is frankly pretty disgusting, with teams holding similar standing in division records, conference records, head-to-head records, etc. If the Broncos can win the division simply by having more wins, it will save everyone approximately 10 minutes of math homework.
New York Jets (8-6)
If the season ended today, the Jets would barely take the last wild card spot over the Bengals, but if these two teams finish with identical won-loss records, we could very well have to use four tiebreaking steps to determine the winner. That fourth step is "strength of victory" -- in other words, point differential -- and even that is up for grabs, as the Jets' plus-31 isn't much better than the Bengals' plus-22. (EDIT: A couple of astute readers have corrected me on this; "strength of victory" is not point differential. Rather, it has to do with the winning percentages of the team's opponents throughout the season. Regardless, the Jets and Bengals are still pretty similar in this regard.)
TEAMS WITH A PRETTY DECENT SHOT
Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
The Bengals end their season by hosing the resurgent Cardinals and always-worrying Ravens. Their prime competition for the final playoff spot is New York, of course, but this is still a six-team race. If the Bengals find the playoffs, it will mark only the second time since the institution of the current divisional format that both AFC wild card teams come from the same division.
San Diego Chargers (7-7)
I swear to God, they do this s*** every year:
- 2010: Started 2-5, finished 7-2.
- 2009: Started 2-3, finished 11-0.
- 2008: Started 4-8, finished 4-0.
- 2007: Started 1-3, finished 10-2.
After dropping six consecutive games down the stretch, they have tacked a three-game winning streak to the end of it, thanks in part to their thwomping of an elite team Sunday night. In those three games, they beat their opponents by an average of over three touchdowns. The Chargers are in beast mode.
Coolstandings.com currently gives the Chargers a 6.5 percent shot of winning the AFC West from the Broncos. I think it's going to happen, y'all.
TEAMS WITH A NOT-TOO-IMPROBABLE SHOT
Oakland Raiders (7-7)
Mathematically, the Raiders' odds of reaching the playoffs aren't really any worse than the Chargers', but the momentum is carrying Oakland in the wrong direction. At this juncture, we can't really call the Raiders a clear favorite, no matter who they play. But the games are still out there for them to win, and if they do beat the Chiefs and Chargers to finish out the season, their odds of reaching the playoffs are close to a coin flip.
Tennessee Titans (7-7)
DANG. If this team had beaten the winless, terrible Colts on Sunday, they would be right in the middle of things right now. But they didn't, and now they're in .500 hell.
The Jets and Bengals are one game ahead of the Titans in the wild card race with two left to play. Unrelated: now that Colt McCoy has gone down for the Browns, over half the AFC is forced to use a different quarterback than they used on Opening Day. We really need to start outsourcing this position to robots, but we're about five years removed from the day they can make a passable stinkface.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-8)
The Chiefs, as any Chiefs fan will remind you, began their 2011 season by being completely blown out in their first three games. They have lost their star running back, their quarterback, their big-play tight end, their two biggest defensive playmakers, and their head coach. And somehow, they show up here.
Following a win over a Packers team that had won 19 consecutive meaningful games, the Chiefs' odds, according to coolstandings.com, stand at five percent. They finish up their schedule with chances to take down the division-leading Broncos and 7-7 Raiders. If that happens, they're 8-8, which might be good enough to win the AFC West at this point in history.
If the NFL playoffs were a sitcom, any possible Chiefs appearance would be a Very Special Episode.